24 January, 2011

Picture Post: snowy mountains

A weekend skiing in Åre:

Our home for 4 days

Stu, about to bana up the berg.

That is a frozen lake with TWO tractors on it.

Proof I was in snow gear
Stu was all over the slopes, like a frickin' puppy. I did NOT ski (too chicken) but I had a great time. Petter even played a DJ set while we were in town. Åre is a cute little ski town, and so convenient to Stockholm! People have been winter-sporting here for 100 years...I wonder if my grandparents skied here?

My mormor & morfar, though probably not Åre
(thanks to my photogy cousin for making these digital!)

19 January, 2011

So Swedish

Just a quick one...my French friend Anabelle has been staying with us for the week (finding housing in this city is HARD!)  For my birthday this week, she bought me a small box of lovely French macarons. I love those things, they are just amazing. Light green pistachio is my favorite. But she didn't buy them in France before she left, she bought them here in Stockholm. Can you guess which flavor the black one is?

Mmmm hmmm, salty liquorice. Swedes think it is okay to make a salty liquorice flavored macaron. It's an abomination, if you ask me.
But I'll let you know how it tastes...I'm not usually one to let baked goods go to waste, even ones that could have been concocted by Bertie Bott's Every Flavour ;)

To Åre, to Åre

Heading half-way up Sweden! Taking the night train! We're going skiing for the weekend, in Åre with a group of friends. I have never, ever been skiing. I'm not sure I am going to pop that cherry this weekend, either. I fell flat on my face IN MY APARTMENT on my birthday, nearly smashing my laptop (thank god, it is fine and only only have bruises.) But in general, I lack both balance and coordination, which are both major requirements for successfully speeding down a hill of ice on two skinny flat boards with only dagger-tipped sticks to guide you. I can't even answer my cell phone without hurting myself, and I'm thinking it is too early for Stu to get to claim that life insurance policy. I have been told there is dog-sledding, however, and I am very excited about that possibility!

A few things I learned about Åre today from a group of very excited Swedes:
The most famous Swedish rapper, Petter, calls it home.
It is it's own republic.
There was a bid for the 2014 Olympics to be held around here
It is quite close to Östersund, which has been plagued by a terrible water-borne parasite, which apparently spread to Åre just in the last few weeks. We'll be drinking only bottled water, thank you.
There is also a Japanese restaurant not far from Åre, in the middle of nowhere, that has a few Michelin stars. Super random.

I can't verify most of those facts, but it should be a fun weekend anyway. Wish me/us luck.

17 January, 2011

12 January, 2011

I must have jinxed the city yesterday, blogging about all the sun and "warm" weather in Stockholm. Today it's back to that stupid gray color we suffered through all last winter. It's hovering right around freezing, but is still snowing, making the sidewalks a nasty, slushy, squishy, dirty mess.

But I didn't start this post to complain (I just happen to be good at complaining.) The last week or so, I haven't left my computer much, between writing essays for school and for the Absolut art collection and trying to start writing my thesis. And Stu has started school and work full-time, so it's unusually quite here. (I even started reading Gawker as a distraction.) I was feeling a little stir-crazy, so despite how gray and mushy it is out there, I had to at least get out of the apartment for a bit. I ended up at a second-hand shop. So strange...when I don't have a destination, I *always* end up at the second-hand shops! I guess it's the random assortment of distractions to look at and the fact that it's no big deal if I have a weak moment, because it's cheaper than any other possible shopping destination in Sweden. Anyway, I scored the coolest little Turkish coffee pot.

I had wanted to buy one in Egypt since I had stocked up on their cardamom-infused version of the coffee, but couldn't find anything ornate enough or the right price (one souk guy wanted to sell my a one-cupper plain pot for 60 egp, or $12. He chased me down the street, halving the price in the process, but still, it was too boring for the price.) However, this little guy was a whole 15sek (about $2). And yes, I am going to fika with it this afternoon! Stu is going to think I am an idiot for getting so excited about a copper pot that I blogged about it.

But that's not all! I ALSO scored the LAST bottle of glögg at the Systembolaget near our place. I am just not ready to give it up for the season! The people in line all chuckled when I explain how excited I was about buying it. Obviously, I haven't been getting out much. 

And to top off those good things, I also spotted my first semlor of the year today! The Lent/Fat Tuesday buns have become my favorite part of February (celebrating Stu's birthday is a close second, though.) I frickin' love cardamom. Oooooh, brilliant idea...a semla and a Egyptian-style Turkish coffee might be *the* combination this year. 

It says "Semlor, good people!" but I prefer to think of it as "Get your semlor, bitches!"
Okay, so I should go back to work now...I have to prepare a powerpoint presentation for school Monday (which also happens to be my birthday. Ugg.) But I will leave you on another good-thing note--we are gaining nearly a half hour of daylight every week now. It just keeps getting better and better...

11 January, 2011

Unusual winter weather

The Stockholm sky is clear and it is sunny. And (relatively) warm! It's a good week (my mood is admittedly sun-dependent.)

We are going skiing next week in Åre, a big ski resort town for a not-so-big mountain from what I'm told (what do I care, I'm just going to be sipping hot cocoa in the lodge anyway.) But the snow seems to be melting, and fast! It got up to a whole 37F degrees (maybe warmer) and I can see sidewalks and roofs for the first time since November. In Åre, they are warning about the risk for avalanches.
Some poor guy last week was knocked unconscious by a falling icicles on a Stockholm street. The weather report says it will get down to 20F/-7C later this week, so of course that means the slick sidewalks will be treacherous. Thankfully I don't have to leave the house much ;)

But I'm looking at the bright side right now! Sun!

09 January, 2011

Egypt, condensed

Just one more Egypt post, I promise. Well, from me, anyway. Stu kept a written journal of his thoughts on our trip to Egypt, which seemed like such a great way to keep the ideas and feelings fresh. I didn't, but I think the pictures we took helped a little with that. We took nearly 1000, but there were so many things we didn't capture! I didn't get a single photo of any of the souks (bazaars) we went to, despite that they were overwhelming, colorful and fun. No pictures of our ridiculous donkey ride...too nervous to take my hands from my crappy reins. No pictures on New Years. No pictures at Valley of the Kings or the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (due to site regulations, but still!) We had an AWESOME tour group and tour leader for our trip (company link here), so I'm hoping a few of them will have pictures to share of those things we missed.

We would have been happy with simply the sun, blue sky, sand, and warmth. But wow, Egypt has so many beautiful parts. Just the history, not to mention the temples and monuments and mosques and sea. Horus became my favorite Egyptian god, and we visited several temples dedicated to his falcon-y awesomeness. I didn't buy nearly enough stuff, but the spices and scarves and jewelry were all so beautiful and cheap (it was just too exhausting to bargain at every corner.) And the food! Such good food in Egypt. And no one got food/water poisoning, as far as I know. We ate so well the entire trip, even on our 4 day bare-bones felucca cruise down the Nile, where we were treated to amazing food from a boat captain wielding a single gas burner and a few old pots. And I ate a pigeon.

And Egypt has some not-so-great parts. I fully recommend a trip there, but when you are a pampered westerner (even one without a job, like me!) you get a little humbled. The average Egyptian annual salary is not much more than $1,500; the average annual American makes at least $32,000. We were SO sick of everyone asking for baksheesh, but then you have to remember that those few coins they get from offering you and your other rich vacationers toilet paper might be what allows them to feed their children. Even little, tiny kids were begging (or trying to sell us touristy junk in perfect English.) And the housing is unbelieveable (in some areas, made up of only palm fronds and mudbrick, since it never rains.) The water is not good. We drank only bottled for nearly 3 weeks and racked up a small mountain of plastic refuse, which I can only imagine was dumped on the banks of the Nile. There is no such thing as recycling. The motor-powered Nile cruises would speed by us on our sail-powered felucca, leaving trails of oil that found its way onto the sand in black globs. Our toilet on our train was just a seat on a hole to the speeding track below. It was also my first time in a Muslim country. What was the appropriate behavior for us as tourists during the warbled call to prayer? And we were in the country during a terrorist attack, which is a little scary. Although I didn't experience anything too unpleasant aside from the challenge of finding a restaurant that served beer, our new friend Jess was refused service at a cafe because she is female (her brother could order, though.)

So, good with the bad, we could easily go back, since we missed several big sites, Alexandria, Sinai. I'd even take kids there (just with a slightly amended itinerary.) It was a great way to spend Christmas and New Years! Though if we are still in Sweden next winter, we owe the family a trip back State-side.

07 January, 2011

Jan 5, 2011

Day 18

Last day. 10 hours of sleep, yet feeling a cold coming on, I was glad for the chance to take it slow and easy. We really were quite fortunate with the way things worked out the whole trip. Our last breakfast with Turkish Coffee which is exquisite as it is miniscule meant that tomorrow would be greeted with our customary Swedish carafe at home, and lots of it. After two weeks of Nescafe we won’t know how to behave!

The TV had what could’ve been anything but probably was more talk of the New Years attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria, which killed more than 20 people. I’m sad about the news, which is disturbing, and shocked by how ignorant we can be of it all in our vacation bubble. Life goes on and the world keeps turning. Our experience in Egypt was completely divorced of any that kind of unpleasantness, but as I sold many insurance policies saying, “It only has to happen Once to you, personally for it to suck.” Eloquent, I know. The sad irony is that for us, every mention of the Coptic Church was married to how peaceful the coexistence was between Christians and Muslims: mosques and churches across the street from each other as a metaphor.

We didn’t wander for today, but played it conservative. No ambitious plans as the hour-long cab rides would’ve jeopardized our timely arrival to Cairo Int’l. Instead, Anne shopped the United Colours of Benetton and loaded up on random grocery items while I nursed my sniffles with a massive OJ. But nothing tastes as vibrant as the oranges we had on the felucca--new sense memories, and a new benchmark.

I felt completely relaxed on the cab ride out of town, in contrast with the one in. The city has become more familiar now, and everyday life goes on for the 20 million inhabitants. Early on, our group had tried to decipher what the honk patterns meant (2 short honks might mean, "Hello, on your left!" whereas 4 or 5 long ones meant "Get the f%$&* out of the way"). On the cab ride to the airport, I tried to figure the number of car honks per kilometer, and figured something like 25 million a day. Must have custom horn repair shops, as a busted one would render a driver mute. Surely a violation of free speech.

We’ll never forget this trip, and after coming to Egypt I sincerely hope that it continues to improve. Cairo reminds me of Seoul from about 20 years ago, and there are Hyundai’s everywhere. I hope that along with the lifting economy, the people can be led by what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Ma’a el salama.

Jan 4, 2011

Day 17
On the sleeper train to Cairo. We opted to upgrade from the way we traveled south in order to return north with the added luxury of lying flat. Which was quite nice, and the bathrooms were a big improvement. Although these things sound “high-maintenance”, call us picky. Getting back to our last full day in Cairo refreshed and restored was another added benefit.
You have to just give over to Cairo traffic during cab rides... it has to be experienced to be understood. Words can’t describe the chaos, the clamor, the random donkey carts and pedestrians in death-defying acts, and I cringe to think of how an ambulance would arrive or depart in time should someone meet an ill fate.
We ventured out with Mike & Jess who had also upgraded to sleeper. A quick consult of our trusty Footprints guide and we hopped a cab (flagged by the hotel, no hassle) to Al-Qala-at Salah al-Din, or the Citadel, founded in 1172 by none other than Salah al-Din. But even on the trip across town our impressions began to shift.

“We are so over Cairo,” we had said to each other wearily.
After the bucolic and pharaonic wonders we’d seen in the desert sands and along the banks of the Nile, the prospect of such a honking, heaving, smoke-belching metropolis seemed a particularly unpleasant way to end our visit. But we were wrong. Crossing the river, we prepared ourselves for more of the same as we went through Downtown... which shocked me by how silent it was; calm, and gorgeous architecturally a blend of old and new builds as we continued westward. Coming up the ridge to Al-Burg we marveled at the view of Cairo and debarked the cab feeling already more enamored with our exploration.
The Citadel was magnificent. It was a clear(ish) calm day and we sat at a cafe with a terrace commanding Coptic Cairo, Giza, and the Mosque of Sultan Hassan. In the distance, the hazy view of the stepped pyramid was an awe-inspiring addition to the context and layers of history.
We then made our way north. Just when you feel that you’ve gotten enough of haggling, behold the Khan el-Kahlili. The granddaddy of markets since 1322. (We had to skip the Military Museum due to time: each cab ride took an hour, regardless of destination, it seemed.)
Getting down to the Blue Mosque dumped us into a thousand-year old warren of streets time forgot. We weren’t ready for it. After getting turned off by the prospect of haggling for a charity donation “for the children” (I’ll donate to UNICEF instead), we caravan/convoy marched out way out... a “grueling” 600 meters to be sure, but through uncertain neighborhoods, it was anxiety-inducing. We were confronted by sights, smells, sounds... and our own fears and prejudices. We were fine. It was just a true old neighborhood with life’s shoe repairmen, butchers, spice shops, scooters, puddles of dubious provenance, the acrobatics of balancing boards of bread on one’s head, wood-fired ovens roasting sweet potatoes, ladies selling corn by the ear, kittens, and the Khan.
The architecture is breathtaking. The twists and turns reminded me both of Venice (from our cosmopolitan travels), and the video game rendition of Damascus in Assassins Creed (from my more banal adventures, couchside). Arches, screens, mosques in striped bricks, cornices, towers, tunnels and stalls: I must’ve really fallen in love then.
And we must have hit the streets on a quiet day, if anything we had less hassle than in Aswan or Luxor, but maybe that’s just because we’re more seasoned. The bazaar was just hitting nightfall and seemed sparkling and mysterious and unending.
The cab back was supposed to be a pit-stop before heading out to an evening of belly dancing (seemed the thing to do, right?), but after another hour of congested traffic and CONSTANT HONKING and the impression of too much carbon monoxide intake, we were ready to cash our chips in early. A chance run in with Scott & James meant we could enjoy our last evening together of fuul, kebab and mango juice so pulpy you’d have to floss. Saying goodbye was hard, but if we tour like this again... maybe India.
There always be more opportunities, but I was also jealous that we weren’t joining the 5am departure to Sinai and Jordan for the next leg. When they proposed a late night of clubbing at Buddha Bar... we were happy to be in bed by 9:30. Old married folks.

View of Cairo from the Citadel

06 January, 2011

Jan 3, 2011

Day 16
An early start, 5am, ends our first night of sleep indoors. But after a quick breakfast and tea on a water taxi across to the West Bank of the Nile, we prepared for take-off: hot air balloons over the Valley of the Kings. I was thrilled. It was incredible! Before we started we could see a candy-jar armada floating away, and on the ground were workers and trucks scrambling about. We got to watch as six balloons were prepped at once and I couldn’t help it: Flight of the Valkyries was playing on my mental shuffle.

I have always wanted to ride in an air balloon, since they fly over our apartment in Stockholm... Nej, earlier. Since my Trapper Keeper days with a giant multi-colored balloon photo on the cover. I remember that my aunt had described to me that take-off and riding in a balloon felt like floating, and once the billowing flame had sent ripples up the fabric of the craft fewer and fewer of the ground crew held the frame of the basket. Sure enough, rising into the air seemed the most natural thing in the world. I couldn’t help the backwards impression that the ground was falling away. Anne said it seemed no different than flying in a plane.

Valley of the Kings (or Queens, or Nobles?)
After we gained a bit of altitude, however, I felt decidedly uneasy whereas Anne blithely leaned over the edge and remarked how high we were. Two different experiences? You betcha.
We could not take a decent photo. It was slightly hazy and anyway, nothing is comparable to the actual experience of seeing it all. Karnak laid out bellow with its massive 50 acres (0.2 sq km), the crumbling Colossi of Ramses with their ant-like visitors, and the unusual architectural departure from pylons of the tiered temple of Hat-Cheap-Suit. The Valley of the Kings was laid out like a Lego set that we could reach out and reassemble.

As we drifted, I came around and dared look over at the donkeys and workers in the fields below which thawed into wonder as we skimmed the palm trees thanks to a little bit of showing off from our pilot. A farmer curmudgeonly complained at our arrival so instead of putting down on his crop two of the ground crew walked our basket over to a clear spot--lighter than air!

Our group (minus 3)
To give him the t-shirt, or not to give him the t-shirt. So strange. 

There were children begging and complimentary t-shirts, a bizarre juxtaposition. And as we walked to our transport we saw workers uncovering yet another temple. Extraordinary!
The triangular peak of the Valley really does put one in mind of a great pyramid, and so was a fitting place for the Kings of Thebes to choose as a burial: first up high, then digging deep below. Alas, none proved defensible to thieves. They were all robbed. (I wonder if later Phaorohs were responsible, a Dept of the Treasury for the next funeral mask?) Except, one obscure and undiscovered until 1922. All we have is the mere 4,000+ artifacts of that nobody, Tutankhamen. (Seti I would have been a real find.)

The tombs of Ramses I, III and Merenptah were magnificent, and worth descending 140m to explore. Finally, we get to see hieroglyphics in full, vibrant color as they were meant to be seen. Sorry, they don't allow picture-taking in the Valley (camera flashes can deteriorate the paint.) But the in-tact painted walls put into perspective all the the sandstone-colored temples we’d gawked at, most of the paint worn off. With our stately elder egyptologist’s deft descriptions the pharaohs' funeral monuments came alive once more. It’s a feat of the imagination to mentally fill in all the patches and decipher the cryptic characters on the walls. Strangely, I was put in mind of nothing so much as comic books: stories told in panels of mythic super beings...
From high flights of fancy to lowly reality--we took donkey rides down out of the Valley of the Kings, a full 7 kilometers through the desert and villages. Cairo scooter jockeys got nuthin’ on us: try straddling and steering a beast with no throttle and no stirrups as giant honking tour buses whiz by. Once we’d descended the hills things improved after one final harrowing intersection, a donkey sans rider (she fell face-first over the donkey onto the pavement), a painfully sore bottom and steed behind mine amorously attempting to mount mid-gallop. Our pace slowed and we weaved through fields and villages which lead one to wonder, upon seeing the irrigation canals, just how long these stretches had supported life. 8,000 years? More?
This was before the Donkey Ride of Death started. 
“Stop Donkey. Go Donkey. Good Donkey”
Steering is a matter of willpower, but speed (including zero) is impossible. Despite all this, and including one lady from another tour doing a face plant after an untimely pothole for which we couldn’t stop (“Whoa, Donkey”), we made it to a refreshing, delicious, traditional Egyptian meal. And there was beer. It’s amazing how soothing a cushion and a drink can be, especially after looking Death in the eye.
Another water taxi and were free to experience the Open Air Museum of Luxor one last time. I was tired of the unsolicited hassle for taxi’s and advice I didn’t want. (mish ayyiz) So I had to remember to take things easy, chill out and embrace the cultural experience... a mango smoothie aided immeasurably. We ran into our friends in the souk, or bazaar. I was the recipient of some more accidental haggling that resulted in a scarf I did like (bargaining thanks to Mike). We were treated to an unwelcome tour of the bazaar to a part we didn’t want to see...the real souk (not the sanitized tourist version) Beware of anything free, which in Egypt is especially true.
The Nile at Luxor
After finding Luxor Museum (new, beautifully curated) and dodging the touts by taking the waterfront, we met for one last meal with the whole tour group. They were an incredible bunch that we’d gladly travel with again. We went for a night cap at the regal Winter Palace, and then the “my kind of scum” dive bar around the corner. Talk about a “union of opposites”! Egypt certainly contains contrasts.

Jan 2, 2011

Day 15
We woke up to our last breakfast on the boat and bid our crew goodbye. Think we were all sad to see our boat life go and shocked at riding in a vehicle with wheels again.

After 4 days camping on the Nile (again, without showers or toilets!)
Pop, like that, the bubble bursts and the spell was broken.

A luxury tuk-tuk?

The area of Kom Ombo is known for its sugar cane production, which meant the city was filled with black factory smoke.


Taking the back way through farming villages we could see how many people still live poor but simple, honest lives. With a bewildering array of mud brick ingenuity. We made our way to Edfu temple. Dedicated to Horus, Edfu is the most intact ancient temple. Period. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at stumpy Greek & Roman columns trying to imagine what it looked like. No need here. Thanks to being buried in sand for centuries, Edfu’s 90% intact, and amazing.

Horus and Anne

Nearly every temple we went to was defaced...by Christians. They took issue with polytheism & Egyptians gods.

Some random guy who wanted us to take a picture of him, then asked for baksheesh. Gotta love the Egyptians.
Even if we were starting to feel “templed out” this was a good order to see them in.
Then on to Luxor, formerly known as Thebes, and the capital of the New Kingdom (circa 1500 BC). We rode horse carts to Karnak, which was an incredible, huge temple complex. The columns! Oh, they were so cool. In rows 6 by 16, and so fat it takes ten people to link arms around them. Words and photos don’t do them justice.

Luxor Temple
Avenue of the Ram-headed Sphinx in Karnak

It would take a lot of Anne's to encircle that column!

One of Hatshepsut's fallen columns, with one of the only images showing her as a *woman* king.